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Jordan's middle class revolt

June 5, 2018

Days of protest in Jordan have forced the resignation of Prime Minister Hani Mulki. The country's unique location can cause geopolitical headaches, but protesters believe many of the problems they face started at home.

Jordan protest
Image: picture-alliance/Photoshot/M. Abu Ghosh

For days, Jordanians have been protesting in the streets. Now their calls for change have borne fruit: Prime Minister Hani Mulki stepped down on Monday. As public discontent continued to grow, he decided to offer his resignation to King Abdullah II, who accepted it and commissioned Minister of Education Omar al-Razzaz to form a new government.

Amman, the most expensive city in the Arab world

The protests were triggered by new austerity measures pushed for by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in its guidelines for Jordan. They stipulated that the income tax be raised by at least 5 percent, and corporate taxes be increased by as much as 40 percent.

The Jordanians' anger, however, runs deeper, says Tim Petschulat, head of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation's Amman office. According to a study by The Economist magazine, Amman is the most expensive capital in the entire Arab world. The cost of living is significantly higher than that of Dubai or Abu Dhabi, but with much lower salaries.

Hani Mulki
Prime Minister Hani Mulki resigned on MondayImage: Imago

"The typical rent for a four-room apartment is at least 350 Jordanian dinars (€420, $490) per month," he says. "And if the average income is 400 dinars, you can imagine that there won't be much left over. On top of that are health expenses, and those for education. There's a state-funded education system, but the middle class wants to guarantee their children a good education. So children are often enrolled in private schools, which of course cost money."

Jordan: Protests continue despite resignation of prime minister

A difficult geopolitical situation

Jordan's geographic location compounds the problems it faces, says Amman-based freelance journalist Rana Sabbagh. The country has no natural resources and conflicts in some of its neighboring countries force the government to invest a large part of its budget into its security and military apparatus.

That spending only makes it more difficult for the country's strained public sector to expand its labor force. Every year, 60,000 young graduates are looking for employment. "At the same time, the private sector is under considerable pressure, as Jordan can barely export anything: Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria and the Gulf region are quite closed off due to the current political situation," says Sabbagh. "We pay a very high price for our geopolitical situation."

High taxes, limited services

What has exasperated her fellow citizens, however, is the impression that the government is not fulfilling its duties: The country's education system and infrastructure are both outdated. "People are fed up," says Sabbagh. "They pay enormously high taxes and get very little in return." In addition, she says that the high burdens on the state budget come from the salaries of public employees and civil servants, and that the pensions for former ministers also make a huge financial impact.

Jordan's Zatari refugee camp
Jordan is home to more than 1 million Syrian refugeesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Nasrallah

As a next-door neighbor to Syria, Jordan has taken in over 1 million war refugees. So far, however, Jordan has only received a portion of the required international aid. The UN's refugee agency (UNHCR) has made an urgent appeal to international backers to honor aid pledges to Syrian refugees. So far, they have only paid one-fifth of the €4.8 billion needed for the current year, said the UNHCR director for the Middle East and North Africa, Amine Awad, last week.

The middle class revolts

The protests of the past few days have brought more people out on the streets than ever before — even more than in 2011, when a wave of uprisings spread through much of the Arab world. One thing is striking this time around, says Sabbagh: The current demonstrators are decidedly secular. "It's not the Islamists, who are constantly attempting to dominate everything," she notes. "The people who are demonstrating now belong to what remains of the middle class. They are young Jordanians."

"They all went to university and are connected to the world through the Internet — via Facebook and Twitter," Sabbagh says. "I am very pleased with that. We have a middle class that is expressing itself."

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East